GM Food Goes on Trial

The fundamental rule of retail is: The consumer is always right. The World Trade Organization (WTO) has once again disregarded this rule by declaring the majority of European consumers wrong.

In poll after poll, Europeans have voiced their skepticism of food that's been altered at the genetic level. Their governments initially responded with a moratorium on new GM products and subsequently adopted a Europe-wide policy on product labeling. But in its latest ruling, the WTO did some labeling of its own, declaring Europe's cautious policy on genetically modified organisms (GMO) an unfair barrier to trade.

The 800-page report, the longest decision in the WTO's short history, has not yet been released to the public. But the U.S. government and its co-plaintiffs, Canada and Argentina, are already treating it as a historic ruling. The European Union, on the other hand, has dismissed the report as simply a ruling about history, since it lifted its moratorium against GMOs in 2004. Still unclear is how the ruling will affect different regions within Europe that continue to declare themselves GM-free.

The Europeans will likely appeal the ruling. If it still goes against them, they may well steal a page from their other longstanding dispute with the United States over hormones in beef: Pay the penalty and maintain the cautious policy.

What's the big deal? you might ask. They say tomato and we say GM tomato, so let's forget about the whole thing. But the United States has been downright pushy in its approach to biotech. The Agency for International Development (AID) is a big booster of GM, and some offending grain has found its way into shipments of food aid to GM-wary countries. The Trade Representative's office pushes GM through bilateral and multilateral treaties. The State Department tries to twist arms through rather undiplomatic letters of protest, like the one it sent to Nicosia in July when new EU member Cyprus proposed to put GM food on separate shelves at grocery stores.

This pushiness is not simply a byproduct of the usual missionary arrogance of Americans. The underlying story is that biotech has hit a few roadblocks.

In 2005, according to the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications, the rate of growth of GM crops was 11 percent. That might seem like a lot. But it's the slowest growth rate since GM was introduced in the mid-1990s. The rate is down from 20 percent in 2004 and 15 percent in 2003. Even taking into account the saturation of certain markets -- GM soy, for instance, now accounts for 85 percent of the soybeans grown in the United States -- such a slowdown translates into lost revenue for biotech firms and less buzz for the movement as a whole.

Governments around the world remain circumspect. Even China, which has moved quickly on some GM crops like cotton, recently stepped back from commercializing GM rice in November, citing safety concerns.

Responding to pressures from the Japanese and others, Monsanto pulled back from bringing GM wheat to market in 2004. The Europeans, meanwhile, point out that 131 countries back their cautious approach, for that is the number of signatories to the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety. This international treaty, attached to the Convention on Biological Diversity, underscores the right of each country to make a sovereign decision on how to handle the cross-border trade in GM products and technology.

Even here in the United States, where the largest amount of GM food is grown, biotech is showing a certain failure to thrive. The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) released a report last year pointing out that the industry is not pushing new products through the U.S. regulatory system. Meanwhile, the biotech industry still opposes relatively simple reforms that would boost consumer confidence here in the United States.

"We do not have a mandatory pre-market approval process for GM crops at the Food and Drug Administration," CSPI's Gregory Jaffe points out. "We only have a voluntary consultation process. We're the only country in the world with such a process."

If governments are wary, the public is even more so. Contrast the WTO process with a very different trial that took place in Mali last month. Facilitated by the International Institute for Environment and Development, 43 Malian farmers grilled 14 international experts and then debated among themselves the merits of biotech. After five days of deliberations, they decided that GM was not for them. Citizen juries held elsewhere in the world -- in Brazil and in Karnataka and Andra Pradesh in India -- have produced similar verdicts.

A case can certainly be made for GMOs. GM crops are popularly used in South America along with no-till agriculture, a technique that both prevents soil erosion and reduces the amount of fuel used in farming. By cutting down energy inputs in farming, according to one recent report, GM crops may have contributed to a reduction in greenhouse gas production equivalent to removing nearly 5 million cars from the road annually. Scientists are developing GM crops that can desalinate fields and even turn color in the presence of landmines. New techniques, such as RNA interference technology, rely on the cell's own underutilized capacities rather than introducing foreign genes.

The global jury is still out on whether GMOs are a boon or a bust. The farmers of Mali and the legal experts of the WTO have both spoken. Ultimately, consumers might have the final word. Inspired by the Europeans, labeling laws are spreading around the world. No matter how hard the United States lobbies or the WTO deliberates, if a GMO label translates into a skull and crossbones in the public mind, then supermarkets won't be able to give the stuff away.

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